Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence is not simply a sentence that is too long. Rather, it is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses are fused together without the proper punctuation or conjunctions needed to hold them together in a grammatically correct way. There are many types of run-ons. We'll cover the three most common.  1. Comma splices A run-on sentence with a comma splice consists of two independent clauses separated by a comma and missing a conjunction---for example: I need a new TV, … [Read more...]

Dove vs. dived

Dived is the traditional past tense and past participle of the verb dive. But the newer dove, which probably came about by analogy with similar words like drove and wove, has been in the language approximately two centuries and is now standard in American and Canadian English. Outside North America, where dived still prevails by a large margin, some might consider dove wrong. According to this ngram, which graphs occurrence of the phrases he dived and he dove in a large number of American … [Read more...]

Complacent vs. complaisant

Complacent means self-satisfied, smug, or contented to a fault. Complaisant, a relatively recent loanword from French, means cheerfully obliging or tending to go along with others. Both have negative connotations when applied to a person, and they might share a little common ground, but they're easy to keep separate. Think of a complacent person as someone who is willfully ignorant, unconcerned, or overcontented, while a complaisant person is a pushover, willing to do whatever anyone … [Read more...]

Nouns as adjectives

Nouns sometimes function as adjectives. For example, in each of these phrases, the first word is usually a noun but here functions as an adjective modifying the second word: city government, article writer, bicycle thief, Sunday picnic, pumpkin pie. Adjective--noun confusion When this type of functional switching could cause confusion, consider rewording. Consider this sentence: Ask the cooler guy if we need more fish. Here, cooler could be interpreted in two drastically different ways. … [Read more...]

French accent marks

French uses several accent marks to guide pronunciation. These are the most commons ones. 1. L'accent aigu: The aigu accent points to the right and upward. Only appearing above the letter e, it changes the letter's pronunciation to ay---for example, médecin (may-deh-sehn, meaning doctor), étouffer, (ay-too-fay, meaning to stifle), marché (mar-shay, meaning market). 2.  L'accent grave: The grave accent points to the left and upward. It can appear over any vowel, but it only alters … [Read more...]


Betwixt means the same as between. It is rare in the U.S., where it is considered an archaism, but it's still used fairly often in British English, more often in speech than in writing. It sometimes appears in the redundant cliché betwixt and between, meaning in an intermediate position or neither one thing nor another. Examples Except where betwixt is still a living word, its use can come across as a sometimes cutesy, sometimes pretentious affectation. For instance, it is at least a little … [Read more...]


Through the history of poetry, a metrical foot has meant many different things. Today, with regard to modern poetry in English, a foot is usually thought of as a stressed syllable along with its attendant unstressed syllables. So, in general, a line of poetry contains as many feet as there are stressed syllables. For example, the Wallace Stevens line, This single place in which we are and stay, has five stressed syllables---sing, place, which, are, and stay---which give it five feet. But … [Read more...]


The Latin loanword cum, originally a preposition meaning with, in English has come to mean plus or along with being. It usually takes the form [noun]-cum-[noun], with the two nouns denoting characteristics of a person or thing. It's often used to describe an individual's or thing's contradictory or surprising characteristics---for example, "Jimmy is a hunter-cum-animal-activist." Like many Latin loanwords, cum may be either italicized or unitalicized. We usually stop italicizing them when … [Read more...]

Council vs. counsel

Council is always a noun. It refers to an assembly of people brought together for discussion or deliberation. Counsel also has a couple of noun senses---it refers to (1) the act of exchanging ideas or giving advice, and (2) a lawyer or group of lawyers giving legal advice and conducting cases in court---but it's primarily used as a verb meaning to advise. The inflected forms of counsel are spelled differently in the U.S. than everywhere else. In the U.S., they have … [Read more...]

Awhile vs. a while

Awhile is an adverb meaning for a while, and it only works where it would bear replacement with that three-word phrase. Where for a while wouldn't work in its place, it is probably not an adverb, so it should be two words: a while. For instance, in the sentence, "Guests waited awhile for food," awhile is one word because it is an adverb modifying the verb waited (note also that for a while would work in its place). In the sentences, "We have a while left to wait," and, "I saw her a while … [Read more...]

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